LONDON – In recent local elections and in two by-elections for seats in the House of Commons, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) garnered around a quarter of the votes cast. UKIP calls for British withdrawal from the European Union. This demand resonates with a section of the electorate that blames “Brussels,” as the EU institutions are termed, for many of Britain’s economic woes and that is nostalgic for a Britain that was once a leading world power.
UKIP’s other policies are an uncosted and populist amalgam of lower taxes and freedom from the interference from the “nanny state.” UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who has the gift of the gab, is happy to be photographed smoking a cigarette and drinking a pint of beer. (Smoking in public is now decidedly not politically correct.)
UKIP also calls for much stricter controls on immigration and attacks EU provisions on freedom of movement within the EU. This call also resonates with many voters, who are egged on by xenophobic elements in the media.
While UKIP garnered some votes from electors who had supported the Labour or Liberal Democratic parties at previous election, the majority of those, who voted for UKIP candidates, were disillusioned Conservative Party supporters or Tories as they are generally termed in Britain. As a result Tory members of Parliament with small majorities have got the wind up and are calling on the prime minister to do more to shore up support for them by making concessions to the ill-thought prejudices of some U.K. voters.
In particular they want the government to bring forward the proposed referendum on U.K. membership of the EU, promised for 2017 assuming that the Tories win the next general election due in 2015. But this proposal is opposed by the Liberal Democrats in the present coalition government, much to the fury of a fairly large section of the Conservative Party, which abhors the need for a coalition.
The government, with an eye on the UKIP vote, is proposing various measures to limit immigration. It is not clear how feasible some of the proposed measures are. One idea is that landlords should be made to check the immigration status of tenants before granting leases. Without a register of landlords (which does not exist) and without a lot of bureaucratic meddling, it is hard to see how such a measure could be enforced. Many employers need and want immigrant labor and the government’s existing policies on visas especially for students are a counterproductive mess.
The UKIP vote in recent elections looks stronger than it probably is. The recent local elections were held largely in rural areas, where white older voters are in a majority. The turn out was small as it almost invariably is in local elections.
In a future general election UKIP may be able to garner votes from some working people in the cities but they are unlikely to attract many votes from ethnic minorities. Much of their support was probably a protest vote by electors disillusioned with the main parties. Many of those who voted for UKIP were like Mercutio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who expressed his frustration with the order prevailing in Verona by calling for “A plague o’ both your houses.”
Even UKIP doubts whether, in a general election decided through Britain’s single member constituencies by the first past the post electoral system, it will gain more than a handful of parliamentary seats.
So why should the established parties worry about a group that one British Cabinet minister perhaps unwisely categorized as a group of clowns?
One reason for concern is the danger that disillusionment with party politics as practiced today will bring democracy into disrepute. UKIP is not the only anti-establishment and anti-EU party in European countries. Such parties with a variety of usually rightwing policies exist in countries as different as Finland, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Greece. They do not have the power to destroy the EU, but they do pose a potential threat and draw attention to what has been termed the democratic deficit in the EU.
The European Parliament is supposed to be the guardian of democratic principles in the EU, but the populations of EU countries display little interest in European parliamentary elections. The popular if unfair image of the Parliament is of a collection of politicians commuting at taxpayers’ expense between Strasburg and Brussels who enjoy lavish salaries and perks for doing very little.
Another danger is that the established parties will pander to the prejudices of protest voters by adopting measures that have been ill thought out and which could be damaging to their economies. Immigration is one such issue.
In the EU with its complexity of institutions insufficient effort has been put into explaining the benefits brought to the peoples of member states by for instance the single market. Nor has enough been done to simplify and streamline the EU bureaucracy and make the rules comprehensible and relevant. The late night inter-governmental ministerial sessions may be unavoidable but often the ministerial battles seem to the populaces of EU countries like childish quarrels.
Individual governments and the EU could and should do more to explain not only why and how the EU has developed, but also to spell out its relevance and value to European peoples.
The future of the EU matters not just to EU countries but also the rest of the world, not least the United States and Japan. It is very much in Japan’s interest that Britain should remain a leading member of the EU. Britain remains the strongest advocate in Europe of free trade arrangements between the EU and Japan. A strong and prosperous Europe is a necessary condition for the revival of western economies and in the long run the survival of Western democracy.
Japan also has to contend with xenophobic anti-establishment parties and politicians who want to take Japan back in time to an imaginary period when Japan could live with its myths isolated from contamination from the outside world.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.